Civic Philanthropy: How Can Cities Leverage Donations?
March 16, 2012 3 Comments
I got to thinking the other day: What if more people cared about making their city a better place? What if more people cared enough to actually do something about it, something that involved their money? What if a city got creative and actually courted the wealthy philanthropists within its borders to contribute to its public space? What if businesses and landowners helped build a public transit system?
What if the city hired fundraising managers just like non-profits, with the sole purpose of securing private donations, and then allowed these people to get creative with events, campaigns, and other programs?
Universities have mastered the art of turning school pride into monetary contributions from alumni, and have also managed to win over huge contributions from local philanthropists not previously connected to the school. USC is currently in the middle of the largest fundraising campaign in higher education history. Cities often inspire the same amount of pride with their residents, but are unable to turn that pride into monetary donations.
Of course, our cities get some of our taxes, but our universities got out tuition (which often equals many, many years worth of tax payments), in return for the services they provide. Yet for some reason we find it far easier to contribute extra finances to help improve our alma mater than we do to help improve our city, while still expecting our city to continuously provide a better service.
It was not (and sometimes still is not) always like this. In 1916, George Allan Hancock donated 23 acres of his Rancho La Brea to the county of Los Angeles, and included the stipulation that it (and the fossils within it) be preserved as a park. The legacy of this donation lives on as the La Brea Tar Pits and Hancock Park that surrounds them.
Just this week, there was an article about a South Florida church that decided to forego building a new worship sanctuary and instead will build a public park. The church has outgrown its current space and still needs to find a replacement, but saw a desperate need for public space in the city and felt they could help meet it. The park, which will be no small amenity, ”will be open to the public and will include the city’s first amphitheater, a splash pad, four children’s playgrounds, sports and multi-purpose fields, common areas, zip line, jogging trail, pavilion and cafe. It will be funded, built and maintained by the church.”
This city manager and parks director praises the plans for providing “amenities that do not currently exist in the City of Cape Coral. No city tax dollars will be used for this park, and we consider it a generous and much-needed gift to our city.” If only more cities could inspire wealthy individuals, businesses, and churches to contribute in similar ways.
Another example I came across this week was in the movie Batman Begins. Preparing for the release of The Dark Knight Rises this summer (of which a large portion was shot here in Downtown LA), I’m going back to watch the first two. Bruce Wayne’s father was the owner of the largest company in Gotham; he was also the city’s most respected philanthropist. There is a scene near the beginning of the film, when the family is riding the monorail into the heart of the city for an opera show, in which Thomas Wayne explains to his young son, “Gotham’s been good to our family, but the city’s been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times. So we built a new, cheap, public transportation system to unite the city. And at the center… Wayne Tower.”
It’s important to note that Thomas Wayne recognized the role of public transit in uniting a city and in benefitting private businesses that are located near the transit. He took pride in the fact that he was able to provide a uniting transit system for the city, and knew that it would benefit his company.
Certainly, there are areas in city government that would not attract and really don’t need private contributions, but a creative government could benefit by turning its civic pride into philanthropic donations. Taking these examples as a guide, I’ll post some more soon about where and how I see private money having a positive place in the public sphere — education, parks, and transit are the three areas I think most probable.
The one caveat to this is that donations to universities, churches, and other non-profits are tax deductible, which is something a city cannot offer quite the same. Doing so would basically allow people to direct their taxes as they desire (which could be in different ways both great and disastrous… but that is another discussion for another time).
Check back soon for my thoughts on private philanthropy contributing to education, parks, and transit, and let me know what you think. Do you see any areas where this could be feasible in Los Angeles? Do you know of philanthropists who are already doing it, or cities that are encouraging it?